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Late one chilly Autumn evening, a cluster of men at the venerable Marshall Chess Club in the Village are playing speed chess, trying not to seem anxious, looking for any excuse not to play Irina Krush. A 17-year-old self-described 'chess nut' and internationally recognized master, Krush is expected to play that night against a dozen players in a simultaneous exhibition. 'I would sign up to play her," says club manager Larry Tamarkin, "but I don't want to embarrass myself any more than I have to."
The collective fear of Krush is not altogether unfounded. She admits that her talent for the game can put people off. "It's gotten so that when I meet people now, I don't even tell them what I do," Krush explains. "More than 50 percent of my life is playing chess. So to leave that out when I meet someone, well, that's a big part of me to leave out."
Just a year ago Krush became the youngest female international master. In 1999, she and three other young players faced off against three-time world chess champion Gary Kasparov in a match followed by thousands around the world. Though the official title of the Internet tournament was "Kasparov v. The World," the match was quickly dubbed "Kasparov v. Krush," because she so dominated the play. In 1998, at the age of 14, she became the youngest woman ever to win the U.S. Women's Chess Championship.
Krush's talent for clobbering her opponents while maintaining youthful grace draws plenty of fans at big tournaments. "Everybody starts whispering, 'That's Irina Krush!' You see these old men come up to her with their chessboards, asking her to sign them. It's like walking into a basketball game with Michael Jordan," says Eliot Weiss, Krush's former high school chess coach. Like MJ, Krush says she's not in it just to win it; it's all for the love of the game. "I like a game where I can fight," she explains. "I don't like to win cheap."
If winning doesn't come cheap it certainly comes easy to Krush, who first began playing when she was five. Since then she's had a lot of firsts, and now she's just two tournaments away from becoming the youngest U.S. female grandmaster everan achievement that would place her firmly in the center of an elite cadre of fewer than 600 worldwide, 50 of whom are in the U.S. Ranking fourth in the world's top-rated girls and 35th among the top women, Krush is in a position to secure a place in chess history. Making grandmaster at her age would put her in the same league as Bobby Fischer, the legendarily eccentric American champion of Cold War lore.
Unlike Fischer, she is no prima donna. Krush's room is, like her, at once sweetly childish and beguilingly adult. Cutesy decals of pastel-colored chess pieces clash with a massive oak desk that looks as if it belongs in the solicitor general's office and is stacked with a laptop and half a dozen chess books. During an interview, sheat first theatrically, then absentmindedlyprops herself up against an enormous stuffed Saint Bernard that a crushed-out boy gave her. "I guess he thought he might be able to get somewhere with me if he gave it to me," she shrugs. As much as she admits to a weakness for stuffed animals, she is not easily impressed. A frilly white wicker daybed populated by teddy bears of varying size runs along the same wall of shelves that hold Krush's 50-plus chess trophies.
With her coterie of awestruck fans, and her killer instincts, it is sometimes hard to remember that Krush is also just a teenager. She wears her curly brown shoulder-length hair pulled back and dresses casually in flare jeans and terrycloth tank tops. Krush's only visible pretense is her refusal to wear her extra-strength wire-rimmed glasses to a match.
Although she dismisses suggestions that her play is overly aggressive, she has earned a reputation for brinkmanship. Last year, at a state high school tournament, she found herself in an especially tight spot when she lost two key pieces early in the game. With her opponent pressing in and time running out, Krush executed a flurry of moves and landed a checkmate with just two seconds left. Coach Weiss recalls, "I was having a heart attack by the end of the game. But no matter what, she always comes back."
Krush's success is even more significant because professional chess is one of the sports in which women are still marginal. The United States Chess Federation, the sport's leading governing body, claims a membership of some 90,000 rated players, barely 7 percent of whom are female. Robert Byrne, longtime chess columnist at The New York Times, calls Krush "the strongest woman ever in American chess."
What would it be like for a man to lose to a woman in this traditionally male mini-arena of ego? Bobby Fischer once remarked in a Playboy interview that he would play any woman blindfolded, play without knights, and still beat her hands-down. How will the male psyche survive a loss to a ponytailed 17-year-old who nonchalantly munches potato chips between moves?